MSc in Bioarchaeology

Course directors: Prof. Matthew Collins and Dr Michelle Alexander

At a glance

Study at the frontiers of archaeological science

Why choose this course?

Like a handful of comparable courses, the York MSc in Bioarchaeology provides training in the advanced osteoarchaeological analysis of skeletal remains. Uniquely, however, it is the only course in the UK to combine this discipline with the molecular analysis of human remains. Nowhere else can you immerse yourself in the study of stable isotopes, lipid residue analysis, palaeoproteomics and ancient DNA – and play an active role in the development of new techniques in this constantly evolving branch of archaeology. In 2014, seven of the top 100 discoveries in science were in archaeology, and BioArCh staff were involved in three of these.


  • Advanced training in human osteoarchaeology, delivered by the UK’s leading practitioners
  • Study ancient biomolecules in world-class facilities at the BioArch centre and Department of Biology
  • Unique opportunity to combine bioarchaeology with complementary subjects and tailor a course to suit your interests
  • Access an incredible range of in-house analytical equipment
  • Take part in cutting-edge science and build essential practical skills
  • Work alongside leading researchers and academics in a diverse range of specialisms
  • Work on diverse material that is often ‘fresh out of the ground’ and make valuable contributions to live projects Receive career and research guidance from staff with significant experience in the sector and a track record of successfully placing PhD students


What does the course cover?

Through a combination of academic studies, practical training and dissertation research, this course provides a thorough grounding in all aspects of bioarchaeology theory, investigation and practice.

Uniquely, you can combine bioarchaeology with a range of subjects and tailor your degree to your own interests. You could adopt a ‘period’ focus, for example, to specialise in the bioarchaeology of the Medieval, Viking, Mesolithic or early prehistoric periods. You could combine human bioarchaeology with zooarchaeology and orientate your course towards more advanced studies of bone function and anatomy. Or you could focus on skills such as GIS modelling and field archaeology.

Who is it for?

This course is designed for students with a passionate interest in the future of archaeology, who want to work at the frontiers of archaeological science. The degree is primarily aimed at those whose previous experience is in archaeology, anthropology, biology or related fields, but we do accept students from diverse backgrounds. The common factor among our student intake is a keen interest in science and in human remains at a biomolecular or bone level.

What can it lead to?

Molecular analysis is used increasingly widely in archaeology, but the range of osteological and molecular skills offered by the course provide valuable training and expertise for a wide range of careers and further study.

Many students go on to take PhDs at York and other institutions around the world. Others pursue a wide range of professional careers, from osteoarchaeology and environmental archaeology to the medical humanities and laboratory technician work. See what our alumni have to say about the course:

“Thanks to the time and dedication of the staff, the structure of the course and the connections I made through York, I was able to expand my skills and confidence and take a fantastic professional opportunity as a researcher.”

Anna Fotaki (2012), Research Technician, Centre for GeoGenetics, Copenhagen

“When I came to York I was overwhelmed by the interest and academic integrity that the lecturers showed towards new students.”

Theis Zetner Trolle Jensen (2013), Archaeological site-leader, Museum Lolland-Falster, Denmark

Course content

Pursue your own interests through diverse module options

This one-year MSc course is taught via a combination of lectures, seminars and lab-based practical work. You will study two core modules, two optional modules and four shorter skills modules of your choice. Finally, you will hone your research skills by producing a dissertation and presenting an assessed lecture on your dissertation topic.

You will be based primarily in the state-of the-art new £12m Environment building, where Bioarchaeology has a dedicated floor, with specialist laboratories for ancient DNA analysis, proteomics, microscopy, isotope geoscience and organic chemistry, as well as hi-technology teaching labs. You will have the chance to carry out projects with archaeologists at King’s Manor and with researchers in Biology and Environment and at the Hull-York Medical School.


During the autumn and spring terms, you will study two core modules, each worth 20 credits. These are:   

The archaeology of human bones
Discover the field of human osteoarchaeology, exploring how skeletal remains can be analysed to learn how our ancestors lived, worked and died. You will study examples from England’s rich archaeological record and develop an understanding of the latest techniques used to analyse archaeological human remains.

Ancient biomolecules
Study the ways ancient biomolecules are used in bioarchaeological research and learn to evaluate and interpret biomolecular data sets. You will examine how biomolecules are preserved, extracted and analysed from ancient skeletal tissues to complement information gained from macro and microscopic techniques.

You will study two further 20-credit modules and four shorter 'skills' modules. 

We always try to give everyone their first choice of modules, although this cannot be guaranteed. Some skills modules required by particular programmes may be over-subscribed. Take a look at the full modules list for scheduling information, as some modules run concurrently.  



In your final term of study, you will carry out research for your dissertation and give an assessed lecture on your dissertation topic.

Here are some examples of previous dissertations:

  • Specialized Processing of Aquatic Resources in Prehistoric Alaskan Pottery? A Lipid-Residue Analysis of Ceramic Shards from the Thule-Period Site of Nunalleq Alaska. Arctic 51, 86–100.
  • Application of proteomics to mummies and dental calculus
  • Pathogens and host immunity in the ancient human oral cavity. Nat. Genet. 46, 336–344.
  • Direct evidence of milk consumption from ancient human dental calculus. Sci. Rep.
  • Roman Leicester and York: a stable isotope investigation.
  • Violence or Accident: Trauma among Anglo-Saxon populations of Norton.
  • Examining the existence and extent of tuberculosis in two Roman Leicester populations.

The Bioarchaeology programme is also available for study as a Postgraduate Diploma or Certificate in Bioarchaeology.

“When going into biomolecular archaeology anywhere it is important to be able to expand outside of your professional comfort zone, as well as be in a research centre that is well established and connected in the field, and York offered me just that."

Anna Fotaki (2012), Research Technician, Centre for GeoGenetics, Copenhagen

“I found that the combination of osteology and biomolecular archaeology helped to give a seamless approach to the study of bones.”

Ruth Whyte (2012), Osteology Project Officer, York Archaeological Trust


Teaching from commercial and academic leaders in the field

Teaching for this course is conducted by experienced and respected academics in bioarchaeology, chemistry, anatomy and associated fields, as well as by leading commercial osteoarchaeologists. The following staff with expertise in bioarchaeology and related disciplines provide the principal teaching and support for this course:

Prof. Matthew Collins
Course Director, MSc Bioarchaeology. Matthew arrived in York to form BioArCh, a joint initiative between the Departments of Biology, Chemistry and Archaeology to further the use of biomolecular methods to tackle archaeological problems. Matthew is particularly interested in the use of ancient proteins to solve archaeological questions.

Dr Michelle Alexander
Course Director, MSc Bioarchaeology. Michelle’s research focuses on the application of biomolecular techniques to help understand the diet and resource base of communities at the interface of socio-cultural and economic transitions in historic populations. She specialises in stable isotope and ancient DNA analysis.

Dr Oliver Craig
Director of BioArCh. Oliver specialises in biomolecular archaeology, in particular the recovery of proteins, lipids and DNA from ancient skeletal remains and archaeological artefacts to provide insights into past human activities.

Dr Camilla Speller
Director of the Ancient DNA facility. Camilla’s research interests focus on the application of biomolecular analyses (ancient DNA and proteins) to archaeological and anthropological questions, with a particular interest in animal domestication, environmental archaeology and ancient human microbiomes.

Malin Holst
Teaching fellow, Osteoarchaeology. Malin is the director of York Osteoarchaeology Ltd, the UK’s leading commercial bioarchaeological company, carrying out excavation, analysis and reporting of human skeletons from archaeological projects.

Additional teaching, support and practical training is provided by other archaeological and anatomical specialists who lead various optional modules on the course. These include Prof. Joann Powell, Dr Kirsty Penkman, Dr Sam Cobb, Prof. Paul O'Higgins and Dr Laura Fitton.

“Although I came from a strong arts background, the help and support of the teaching staff meant I never felt overwhelmed by the scientific content of the course.”

Ruth Whyte (2012), Osteology Project Officer, York Archaeological Trust

“What struck me most was how invested the staff are in their students. They go above and beyond in making sure you progress and really develop your skills.”

Anna Fotaki (2012), Research Technician, Centre for GeoGenetics, Copenhagen


Your next step in bioarchaeological discovery

By the end of the MSc Bioarchaeology course you will be able to:

  • identify and record human bone assemblages
  • age, sex and assess pathologies from human bones
  • understand advanced methods for analysing bone tissues, including biomolecular methods
  • apply chemical and biomolecular methods to skeletal material
  • understand the processes of decay and diagenesis of bone tissue
  • critically evaluate published research and datasets
  • orally present knowledge and concepts
  • work effectively within a laboratory environment
  • plan, design and undertake a piece of independent research

These skills and techniques are deployed widely in the field of archaeological research and exploration, but they are also valuable for a wide range of careers and further studies.

Many our MSc Bioarchaeology postgraduates go on to further research in bioarchaeological and environmental fields. The BioArch department has a successful track record of placing students on PhD courses in York and institutions worldwide.

Here’s a selection of the career and research destinations of some of our recent students: US graduate school programmes

  • Archaeological field units
  • Environmental archaeology
  • Professional archaeologists – field and laboratory based
  • Laboratory technicians
  • Demonstrators
  • University/research technicians
  • Academia
  • On-site osteoarchaeologists
  • Medical humanities

The MSc in Bioarchaeology also provides a solid foundation for the two doctoral training programmes on offer in York:

Find out what some of our alumni have said about the course and how it improved their career and research prospects:

“The confidence, skills and knowledge that I gained during my masters are what have allowed me to succeed in this career, and I continue to use them on a daily basis. I cannot recommend this programme highly enough!"

Ruth Whyte (2012), Osteology Project Officer, York Archaeological Trust


Where next? A word from our alumni

Alumni of the MSc in Bioarchaeology have gone on to take up varied careers and research posts in the archaeology sector and in a whole range of careers that demand advanced osteological and molecular skills.

Here’s what some recent graduates had to say about the course:

Theis Zetner Trolle Jensen (2013), currently archaeological site-leader for Museum Lolland-Falster, Denmark:

Theis Jensen Archaeological site-leader

“When I came to York I was overwhelmed by the interest and academic integrity that the lecturers showed towards new students. Although some months were tough, it was incredibly stimulating to see how much I developed as an academic over the time. As a mature student with years away from studies, due to excavations, I only have positive things to say about my studies in York, and would anytime recommend it to others – which I already have.”

Anna Fotaki (2012), currently Research Technician at the Centre for GeoGenetics, Copenhagen:

Anna Fotakis

“BioArch at the University of York holds a special place in my heart for a number of reasons. What struck me most was how invested the staff are in their students. They go above and beyond in making sure you progress and really develop your skills. During my masters, I had the great opportunity of gaining experience in ancient DNA laboratory research, train in biological anthropology, learn about the various pathways this field is expanding in, as well as make lifelong friends, both professionally and personally. My year consisted of a healthy mix of biologists and archaeologists, and BioArch encompasses perfectly how intermixed the field of biomolecular archaeology is. The atmosphere and buzz created in York for this fascinating field of research is strong and quite addictive.

“When going into biomolecular archaeology anywhere it is important to be able to expand outside of your professional comfort zone, as well as be in a research centre that is well established and connected in the field, and York offered me just that. The MSc here is hard work but worth every minute. Thanks to the time and dedication of the staff, the structure of the course and the connections I made through York I was able to expand my skills and confidence and was thus able to take a fantastic professional opportunity as a researcher at the Centre for GeoGenetics in Copenhagen, where I continue to explore the possibilities of investigating our past through scientific application.”

Keneiloe Molopyane (2010), currently Associate Lecturer in Archaeology at the University of the Witwatersrand, Soth Africa:

Keneiloe Molopyane

“When I left South Africa in 2010 to start an MSc degree in Bioarchaeology at the University of York I was geared up with a high sense of excitement about finally learning how to be ‘Bones’. Within a year I had made lifelong friends, learned how to juggle the science and humanitarian aspects of archaeology and, of course, developed a range of osteology skills that would inevitably contribute to shaping my career.

“Returning to South Africa with a developing knowledge of human skeletal remains I was given an opportunity to work with the South African Heritage and Resources Agency and American research organisations diving on shipwrecks and hoping to come across skeletons. I now serve as an Associate Lecturer in Archaeology at the University of the Witwatersrand where I teach, alongside a mentor, Osteology to the archaeology undergraduate students. All this whilst undertaking a PhD in Anatomical Sciences. I often find myself trying to recreate the experiences I had in the Bioarchaeology programme to my own set of students.”


To apply for this course, you will need:

  • A good honours degree (upper second or first) or an equivalent qualification from an overseas institution in archaeology, anthropology, biology or related fields
  • Or, in the case of mature students who might not have conventional qualifications, appropriate relevant experience.

Mature students or those with less conventional qualifications but with relevant professional experience and enthusiasm for this field will be considered.

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First, check our How to apply page, which explains what information the Department needs from you.


Matthew Collins


If you want to be an archaeologist in the future, the MSc Bioarchaeology course at York offers an unequalled grounding in the disciplines and practices that will be central to this fast-moving field. You will study alongside staff and researchers working at the cutting edge of bioarchaeological discovery and advancement.

Prof. Matthew Collins